The Chinese billionaire couple who started their own museum

Art champion Wang Wei and her husband started the Long Museum in Shanghai to share the beauty of their collection

SHANGHAI - China, with one of the world's largest number of billionaires, is where you will find crazy rich Asians. They live in plush mansions, travel on private jets and dress in luxury labels from head to toe; their lavish lifestyle is rich fodder for gossip columns.

Shanghai billionaire investor Liu Yiqian and his wife, Ms Wang Wei, however, have been making headlines in recent years for different reasons.

Among the world's top art collectors, they frequently set eye-popping records at auctions with their purchases. The latest in their history of expensive buys is a HK$348-million (S$61.4-million) 15th-century Tibetan silk tapestry, which set a world auction record for Chinese art in November.

The couple also made headlines last year when Mr Liu spent HK$281 million on a Ming dynasty porcelain tea cup with a chicken painted on the surface, which he paid for using his American Express card.

In the last four years, the couple, both 52, have also poured more than 560 million yuan (S$122 million) into opening not one, but two large museums in Shanghai to present their extensive collection of art to the public. The force behind much of this is Ms Wang, a mother of four and grandmother of one who looks younger than her age.

The privately owned two-as-one Long Museum is named after the Chinese character for dragon. Located in Pudong and West Bund, on opposite sides of the city, it shows everything from antiquities and traditional Chinese art to Chinese revolutionary paintings and contemporary art from around the world. Together, they are about two-thirds the size of the famed Louvre Museum in Paris.

The opening of Long Museum comes at a time when China is experiencing a museum boom. In 2012, when Long Museum launched in Pudong, it was one of about 450 museums that opened in the country that year, with the total number of museums climbing to more than 3,800.

The surge has raised concerns among some in the art industry that wealthy individuals are opening museums as trophies to flaunt their power and status and that the spaces are no more than glorified storage facilities.

Yet long after the fanfare of the inauguration of Long Museum - December 2012 for the one in Pudong and March last year for the one in West Bund - it has continued to show new, noteworthy exhibitions packed with significant works such as a calligraphic scroll attributed to the great Song dynasty poet Su Dongpo and a 10m-long scroll by renowned Chinese contemporary artist Xu Bing.

When we meet Ms Wang, the museum's director, at its West Bund location on the Huangpu River, she excuses herself after a quick introduction to attend to visitors crowding the entrance. They have not realised that the museum is closed to the public that day and the guards have no success turning away these hopeful visitors.

In dulcet tones, Ms Wang, who can pass as a regular staff in her simple black, sleeveless shift dress and black ballet flats, says the museum is closed but a concession will be made. She lets them into the lobby to sneak a peek and snap a few pictures before seeing them out, urging them to return when the museum is open.

When was the last time a high-powered art collector and museum owner indulged errant visitors? For Ms Wang, however, a strong sense of social purpose has always been the raison d'etre for opening Long Museum. Yet it never crossed her mind, or her husband's, when they began collecting art in the early 1990s, that they would one day open a museum.

They come from working-class backgrounds. She studied tourism in school and worked as a clerical staff while he left school at 14 to help his mother sell handbags. His nose for business led him to invest in stocks as China underwent economic reform in the 1980s and 1990s, and he made a fortune.

With money to spare, the couple began to pursue their interest in art, buying paintings, treasured zisha teapots and porcelain ware.

It was in the late 1990s, after Ms Wang's three- year stint as a manager at a home-grown art auction house, that the couple became more focused in collecting. He followed his passion for antiquities and traditional Chinese art and artefacts, while she sought modern and contemporary works as well as Chinese revolutionary art.

She says in Mandarin: "People used to think I lived a life of luxury, driving a sports car around or going off on holidays, but many times, I was actually travelling to seek out works of art. Sometimes, I would leave in the morning and return that night."

Her fervour for collecting is not fuelled by an overnight thirst for social prestige. It goes back to her technician father's love for art, which rubbed off on her. She grew up during the Cultural Revolution in a house filled with her father's collection of badges bearing the icon of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong, and to the strains of him playing the Chinese stringed instrument erhu.

Years later, as she grew her collection of art, friends told her she should open a museum, but she did not take them seriously. The turning point came in 2009, after she held an exhibition of her collection of revolutionary art at the Shanghai Art Museum in October, in conjunction with the 60th anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

She says: "I went to see the show before it opened to the public and there were tears in my eyes. I really cried. Placed at home, they were mere objects, but hung in a museum, they were stunning.

"I thought, 'In the future, if I have a space to show these works, it would be good to share them with an audience and bring some beauty and enjoyment to society.'"

Five months later, she and her husband bought a former commercial building in a residential area in Pudong and began turning it into a museum.

Although she had no prior experience, she oversaw the entire project from building to curation and learnt the ropes along the way. She donned a hard hat to inspect the construction site with builders and held long discussions with curators.

In less than two years, a 10,000 sq m white granite cube rose from the ground and the museum opened to a great deal of attention. Quickly, invitations poured in from other districts in Shanghai, eager for the couple to open another museum.

But Ms Wang was not keen. "It was tiring opening one museum and I did not think I had energy for another," she says.

But she and her husband found it hard to turn down an invitation to champion Shanghai's new cultural hub in the West Bund, alongside projects developed by American animation company DreamWorks Animation and its Chinese partners. Besides, they have more than enough works - she is mum on the size of their collection - to fill two museums.

Without missing a beat, she plunged right back to working round the clock to open, in less than two years, a 33,000 sq m museum - three times the size of the first one - on the grounds of a former coal wharf. "Even now, I cannot imagine the intense pressure then. I once saw the workers working till 3am." She was an eyewitness because she was on site at that hour too.

She admits the museum took a toll on her family life. "At one point, my husband felt I had given too much of myself to the project and neglected the family. But he was understanding and so were my children. They would jokingly say, 'Hey neighbour, you're home,' when they saw me."

Her commitment is as much financial as it is personal. Last year, she launched free outdoor movie screenings at the West Bund museum on Friday nights and bought 300 stools so that the young and elderly could sit comfortably.

"We are a non-profit organisation and one invested in education. With the river promenade next to us, many people will come in the evenings in the summer to enjoy the breeze. If we screen a free movie every Friday night, then that is education."

Still, the museum has its detractors. Some art specialists have cast doubt on the authenticity of works in its collection, including the scroll attributed to Su Dongpo, while others in the industry have noted the low attendance on regular days. Ms Wang says: "I'm very optimistic. Anyone can say the shows Liu Yiqian and Wang Wei put on aren't worth much and we'll not be perturbed. As long as what we do can benefit society, we should press on."

Part of that journey, she says, is making the museum, which charges an admission of 50 yuan for one venue and 80 yuan for both, self-sustaining. It is operating at a loss of a few million yuan each year.

Her plan is for the museum to be in the black in three to five years, with the museum gift shop a major source of revenue. She has begun rolling out products such as scarves and mobile phone covers and intends to launch the shop with more items.

While her work as a museum director seems never-ending - she still goes to the office at least 51/2 days a week - she relishes it. Laughing, she says: "My job is not done and it will never be done. I think I can direct the museum until I am 75 years old. Art is something I love and those who love art are often those who live life passionately."

lijie@sph.com.sg

Long Museum Pudong

No. 210, Lane 2255,Luoshan Road, Shanghai

Long Museum West Bund

3398 Longteng Avenue, Xuhui District, Shanghai

Both venues open 10am - 6pm, Tuesday to Sunday, and are closed on Monday.

  • Ms Wang Wei, co-founder of the Long Museum in Shanghai, with Beige Portrait by artist Yu Hong.

  • This article first appeared in the February 2015 edition of The Life digital magazine in The Straits Times Star E-books app under the headline "Art champions".